Alex Chavez asks his viewers to cradle life and death in the same hand with his bravado brushwork.
Born and raised in East Los Angeles, the Taos artist came from Mexican farm workers on his father’s side and a mother born in Valdez near the Taos Ski Valley. Chavez moved to Taos in 1996.
“I always felt more balanced and more centered here,” he said.
Chavez grew up with family Day of the Dead altars and cemetery visits where his parents would leave gifts for long-lost loved ones.
“I guess it was a little odd,” he said. “I didn’t know what to make of it except Halloween.”
Today, Chavez paints his own version of that Latin tradition. He shows his prints in “Other Worldly Delights” at Santa Fe’s Keep Contemporary and online at alexchavez.art.
Although Chavez’s images brim with life, they remain seductive reminders of its ephemeral nature. He injects more personality than bones into his portraits, with thick brushstrokes of vibrant color replacing sunken cheekbones.
Chavez began his artistic practice working with watercolors and acrylics. His medium changed to oils when he moved to Taos. At that time, he was painting portraits.
“I tried to get into a group of artists showing every Saturday at the (Santa Fe) Railyard,” he said. “I got declined and they said we’re not sure if people would buy paintings of people they didn’t know.”
An angry Chavez returned home and painted all of the portraits white. It was a turning point. A book about American cultural denial of death cemented his trajectory. He decided to create a series of Day of the Dead paintings without noticeable cultural references such as entangled roses and Latin costumes.
The result was a universal kind of mash up.
“I am not spiritual at all,” Chavez said. “As I turn 60, to me, it’s just contemplation of life. The one thing we have in common is death. I don’t believe in an afterlife and I don’t believe in ghosts. On a purely scientific basis, I can’t justify that.
“These are little reminders that life is not forever.”
His work explores the contradiction between being a nonbeliever painting in a spiritual oeuvre.
Besides, he says he’s always been drawn to the Goth aesthetic.
“It’s a fine line to make them not look like zombies or ghouls,” he said.
“Ash Moon Rising” shows a skeletal Native American in full headdress.
“I did a Native American male figure from a photograph,” Chavez said. “I thought I’d just honor indigenous people.”
He created “Boheim,” with its crown of red roses, for Contemporary Spanish Market.
With her flowing hair and painted face, the woman in “Cold Breeze” appears more human than spectral. “Eternal” reveals a kissing couple in white makeup.
“I did another couple in a very long embrace,” Chavez said. “It’s the theme of eternal love. I’ve been married 28 years.”
“Marqioness” captures a proud Latina in bold splendor. It was a commission from the Keep gallery owner.
“Every time he asks me to do things, I take it as a challenge,” Chavez said. “He’s probably the only commissions I take.”
Chavez gestates his portraits by drawing across the canvas with oils because he likes the immediacy. He next sketches in a skeletal line drawing, constantly refining the image with thick brushstrokes.
“The surface has a textural quality,” he said. “I try to get a real gestural and spontaneous look to it.”
With Covid-19 cases rising, his work could almost be seen as “a premonition,” he acknowledged. Most of his group shows are cancelled. Día de los Muertos envelops his painting.
“It’s the time of the season when the living is more capable of communing with the dead,” he explained. “There’s always that poetic statement that the veil is thinnest this time of year.”
Chavez graduated from the College of Fine Arts, California State College in Fullerton.
His work hangs in Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art as well as in the National Hispanic Cultural Center. “Breaking Bad” producers bought one of his pieces to hang in the hit TV series. He earned a blue ribbon for his work in the 2007 Contemporary Hispanic Market.